Persian Winter Celebration Shab-e Yalda

December 20, 2020

On the evening of December 20-21 Iranians all around the globe celebrate Shab-e Yalda (Yalda Night).  Also called Shab-e Cheleh, this tradition with roots dating back 8000 years is held on the longest and darkest night of the year, corresponding with the winter solstice marking the end of autumn and the beginning of winter.  Originally this was a time people would come together and perform rituals to guard against the dangerous spirits of darkness and ensure the protection of the winter crops. In modern times it is a social event where families and friends often gather in the cozy ambiance of the home of an elder such as grandparents, aunts, or uncles to rejoice in the warmth of one another’s company.
The gathering occurs around a table, and a traditional patterned tablecloth called a sofreh, on which candles and red fruits such as pomegranate and watermelon are placed. Red, representing the crimson hues of dawn and glow of life, is an iconic color in Zoroastrianism.  In addition to being a symbol of bounty, it is believed that eating watermelon before the arrival of winter can immunize one against cold and illness. Pomegranate, too, has symbolic healing properties as it represents the cycle of life.  Iranians also arrange a mixture of 7 ingredients (Ajil) consisting of dates, pistachio, nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, grapes, and various dry berries. These auspicious mixtures symbolize prosperity and are considered as an offering in the resolution of a problem and as a protection against harm.
Food plays a central role in Yalda festivities. One popular dish associated with this time of year is the pomegranate and walnut dish called khoresh-e fesenjan. Traditionally this recipe is made with duck, and the affinity between pomegranate and duck in Persian cooking goes back to ancient times. However, this uniquely sweet and sour stew can also be enjoyed with chicken, lentils, or butternut squash. The celebrated Persian chef and author Najmieh Batmangli has some delightful recipes on her blog including this Recipe for fesenjun
After dinner, the older individuals entertain family members and guests by sharing tales and anecdotes. Another favorite and prevalent pastime of the night of Chelleh is fāl-e Hafez, which is divination using the Dīvān of Hafez, the most famous XIVth century Persian Sufi poet. It is believed that one should not divine by the Dīvān of Hafez more than three times, however, or the poet may get angry.  People gathering together recite poetry, narrate stories, chant, play musical instruments, and perhaps dance long into the night.
Yalda means “birth” and honors Mithra, a pre-Zoroastrian divine representation of light and the sun.  In most ancient cultures, including Persia, the start of the solar year has been marked to celebrate the victory of light over darkness, and the renewal of the sun.  The word Yalda is thought to have been imported into the Persian language by the Syriac-speaking Christians who, escaping persecution in Rome, arrived en masse as refugees during the time of the Sassanian Empire.  The word became equated with Shab-e Cheleh, an ancient celebration of Winter Solstice rituals that was incorporated into Zoroastrianism from the Babylonians.
For Iranians Shab-e Yalda is second only to the Persian New Year celebration Nowruz held during the spring equinox.  These are the two most important pre-Islamic festivals celebrated throughout the Persian diaspora.